In The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall entitles his first chapter “Time as Culture. ” An extreme stance perhaps, especially given the potency of nature’s rhythms, but it is instructive of the extent to which experiences and conceptualizations of time and space are culturally determined. Unlike the rest of nature’s animals, our environment is primarily man-made and symbolic in quality. As Bronowski observed in The Ascent of Man, instead of being figures of the landscape, like antelopes upon the African savanna, we humans are the shapers of it.

Geographical space and natural time are transformed into social space and social time, around whose definitions human beings orient their behaviors. For instance, instead of being governed by the natural rhythms of the sun and seasons, our behaviors are governed by such cultural temporalities as work schedules, age norms, and by the “open” hours of shopping malls. Culture is a shared system of ideas about the nature of the world and how (and when) people should behave in it.

Cultural theorists argue that culture creates inds, selves and emotions in a society as reliably as DNA creates the various tissues of a living body. Culture also creates the rhythms of a society that echo within the very biology of its members. Observes Irving Hallowell (“Temporal Orientation in Western Civilization and in a Pre-Literate Society, American Anthropologist 36, 1955), “It is impossible to assume that man is born with any innate `temporal sense. ‘ His temporal concepts are always culturally constituted” (pp. 216-7).

A 1974 study by William Condon and Louis Sander showed that within a few days, infants flex their limbs and ove their heads in rhythms matching the human speech around them. By the time a child is three months old he has already been temporally enculturated, having internalized the external rhythms (called Zeitgeber, meaning “time giver” in German) of his culture. These rhythms underlie a people’s language, music, religious ritual (the Buddhist mantra, for instance, is not only one’s personal prayer but one’s personal rhythm), beliefs about post-mortem fate, and their poetry and dance.

These rhythms also serve as a basis of olidarity: humans are universally attracted to rhythm and to those who share their cadences of talk, movement, music, and sport. Thus socio-cultural systems can be likened to massive musical scores: change the rhythm– such as putting a funeral dirge to a calypso beat–and you change the meaning of the piece. Cultures differ temporally, for example, in the temporal precision with which they program everyday events (ask any American businessman trying to schedule a meeting in the Middle East) and in the ways various social rhythms are allowed to mesh.

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